Lessons from Samsø


The Danish island of Samsø is an internationally renowned leader in sustainability. Seeking to reduce its carbon footprint in the mid-1990s, before global climate change had even entered the American consciousness, it is an exemplar truly ahead of its time.

The most striking aspect of Samsø’s success is its grassroots ethos. Citizens across the island have played an active role in its initiatives from the very beginning, brilliantly weaving together all three strands of sustainability: creating jobs, reducing carbon emissions, producing energy locally, fostering cooperative ownership of infrastructure, and providing people with the opportunity to collectively invest in their community.


The end result is a unique system, built from the ground up, in which locals take immense pride. For America, where so much of our municipal initiatives come from the top down – even the well-intend ones – it is a wonderful example of what local collaboration and commitment can achieve.

There are important caveats. For starters, Samsø is an island of 4,000 inhabitants – a relatively easy setting for collective action. In addition, Samsø has not in fact reduced its carbon footprint to zero. This island’s offshore wind farm (see image above) makes it a net generator of energy, producing than it consumes and selling the rest back to mainland Denmark. Nevertheless, cars on the island are powered by petroleum. At the tailpipe, it’s hard to argue that Samsø has no progress left to make.

Even so, planners in the Untied States would do well to learn from Samsø’s example. In 2014, a Yale study  found that over a quarter of the American population (27%) was either doubtful or dismissive of the reality of global climate change. As appalling as that figure is, two-thirds of the population was either cautious, concerned, or alarmed.

That 67% needs to be mobilized, and even more important, empowered. We do not need to “demand” change from the top down. Rather, we need to realize that we can make change from the bottom up. Imagine a neighborhood investing in its own windmill or solar array, as well as an electric vehicle charging station. Imagine that same neighborhood investing in medium-scale water recycling infrastructure, reducing its water footprint close to zero. Along with the environmental sustainability, imagine the jobs, the social cohesion, the sense of pride.

The Samsø model shows that incremental, grassroots change can add up to something big. Something big, from something small. This is what the world needs.


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